The Maralinga atomic test site operated by the British government in South Australia, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area north west of Adelaide, and saw a total of seven atmospheric and three underground nuclear tests conducted between 1956 and 1963, including Operation Buffalo (1956), Operation Antler (1957), and Operation Totem (1953). These tests resulted in significant environmental contamination and devastating health consequences for the Indigenous people, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, who were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands, suffered from radiation exposure, and endured long-lasting physical and cultural impacts.
The Maralinga site was also used for minor trials, tests of nuclear weapons components not involving nuclear explosions. Kittens were trials of neutron initiators; Rats and Tims measured how the fissile core of a nuclear weapon was compressed by the high explosive shock wave; and Vixens investigated the effects of fire or non-nuclear explosions on atomic weapons. The minor trials, numbering around 550, ultimately generated far more contamination than the major tests.
Operation Totem 1, 14 October 1953 and Operation Totem 2, 26 October 1953
Operation Totem was a pair of British atmospheric nuclear tests which took place at Emu Field in South Australia in October 1953. They followed the Operation Hurricane test of the first British atomic bomb, which had taken place at the Montebello Islands a year previously. The main purpose of the trial was to determine the acceptable limit on the amount of plutonium-240 which could be present in a bomb.
In addition to the two main tests, there was a series of five subcritical tests called “Kittens”. These did not produce nuclear explosions, but used conventional explosives, polonium-210, beryllium and natural uranium to investigate the performance of neutron initiators.
The fission bomb codenamed Marcoo, tested at Maralinga at 4.30 pm on 4 October 1956, was a ground-burst explosion. In other words, it was exploded at ground level. This clip shows the mute footage from two vantage points. Two cameras were placed at each site – a high-speed Vinten HS 300 and a normal-speed Éclair Cameflex.
Operation Buffalo was the first nuclear test series to be conducted at Maralinga, and the largest ever held in Australia. Planning for the series, initially codenamed Theta, began in mid-1954. It was initially scheduled for April and May 1956, but was pushed back to September and October, when meteorological conditions were most favourable. Ultimately all tests on the Australian mainland were conducted at this time of year. The 1954 plan for Operation Theta called for four tests, each with a different purpose.